Saturday, September 30, 2006

From Mosley to Griffin

It's 70 years on Wednesday since the working class people of the East End of London stood firm against thousands of goose-stepping fascists at what became known as the Battle of Cable Street. There's an excellent piece in today's Guardian with eye-witness accounts. http://www.guardian.co.uk/farright/story/0,,1884440,00.html

The threat from fascism in Britain is if anything more real today than in the mid-1930's. Nick Griffin's BNP may wear suits and ties, but their values are no different from Mosely's Hitlerite thugs. They're lurking below the surface here in Darlington too - today I was passed a sickening leaflet put out in Northgate recently which equated the overwhelmingly decent Muslim community here in the UK with the small band of islamic terrorists. The far right's tactics have always been to poison politics by spreading fear and loathing between communities.

It remains a source of amazement to me that my "sane and rational" friends at the Town Liar website continue to fete a local supporter of the BNP on their pages, without any critical comment. Some it would seem have not learned any lessons from history.

Friday, September 29, 2006

GOLD

Growing Older Living in Darlington (GOLD) brings together people aged over 50. Members form taskgroups to look at a range of issues affecting older people, such as health, leisure, learning and transport. It has over 450 members, so it speaks with real authority on issues in Darlington.

I try and meet with the transport taskgroup two to three times a year at least - today's session was very lively, with about 20 members present. At other times, the group meet with Town Hall officers, or bus company representatives for example.

Understandably, much of the meeting was taken up with fall-out from the Pedestrian Heart work, and the impact on bus movements. Any major change in a town centre will be controversial - in the case of Pedestrian Heart the Council consulted widely before bringing the scheme in and made some significant changes - adding the Priestgate/Prebend Row/Tubwell Row loop for example, which kept buses in the heart of the town. Members told me today that for older people, these bus movements can cause road safety problems for people crossing. I hope that the introduction of a compulsory 20mph speed limit within the town centre soon will assist.

We also debated the poor bus service in some parts of the town, particularly the west end. The Council has increased its budget from £200,000 to over £400,000 in just four years, so services the bus companies wanted to withdraw could at least in part be maintained. There are still some destinations poorly served, if at all however (the Memorial Hospital and West Cemetery are two examples). I promised the taskgroup that our review of supported services would look at all these issues.

More information about GOLD can be found at http://www.darlington.gov.uk/Living/gold/GOLD.htm

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Full Council II

The other issue of note tonight was the shambolic performance put in by the LibDems. Martin Swainston was frankly humiliated as he dared ask only four out of the five questions he had tabled to Bill Dixon about Linden Court (the Council's response to the original Echo story is at http://www.thisisthenortheast.co.uk/search/display.var.936601.0.september_25_2006.php)

We know from elsewhere that uniquely amongst the three main parties, the LibDems will say anything to try and garner a few votes. I'm not sure how Swainston's inept performance over Linden Court will further his cause in Hurworth, however. Appearing to spurn half a million pounds worth of investment in sheltered housing for older people is one thing - to make false allegations about a consultation meeting held by the Council when he himself could only be bothered to stay for 10 minutes at that meeting is quite another. Bill Dixon revealed that after Swainston left, discussion continued, and the residents gave the officer attending a round of applauase at the end. The LibDem story was the worst kind of ambulance chasing, attempting to prey on the fears of some of the most vulnerable members of his community.

To cap it all, during the Pedestrian Heart debate, LibDem councillor Fred Lawton showed his ignorance of basic council standing orders, and so didn't get to table an amendment to Labour's recommendations. The LibDems are a rabble as an opposition group in Council, and how they think they can persuade people in the town that they are fit for office I do not know.

Full Council

Dashed back from Manchester this afternoon to get to Cabinet and then Council.

The session was dominated by the debate on the extra costs associated with the Pedestrian Heart scheme. The officer report can be accessed at http://www.darlington.gov.uk/PublicMinutes/Council/September%2028%202006/Item%208.pdf

In my speech, I said I was as angry and frustrated as everyone else with both the time delays and cost overruns assocaited with the scheme. There have been a series of failings, as you will see from the report, principally the nature of the main contract (which has left the Council carrying almost the whole burden of risk). The contractor Birse who are delivering the scheme have also found the task far more compex than they imagined when they tendered, particularly the problems with the different levels in the town centre.

The Conservatives have been calling for the resignation of the Cabinet over the problems. Usually, resignations calls are brushed aside in politics, but I thought the issue required proper consideration of their demand. In fact as problems have come to light, they have been dealt through a series of decisive responses. The firm previously overseeing the work on a day-to-day basis has been replaced to get a grip on costs, and the area of the Council responsible for managing contracts has been beefed up.

Cabinet members have shown leadership in addressing these problems, and doing everything possible to get the work finished on time. The resignation call was misplaced.

One interesting point which came out during the debate was the fact that three councillors sat on the committee which approved the controversial contract which is at the root of the problems- two Labour Cabinet members and the Leader of the Conservative Opposition Cllr. Tony Richmond. I'm not for a moment suggesting that the three councillors are culpuble - they acted on officer advice after all. It is the case, however, that it is very easy to be wise after the event. I hope that in the Scrutiny Committee Inquiry to come of the Pedestrian Heart scheme, that will be acknowledged.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Clinton's Speech

Another masterclass this morning from a peerless performer.

Clinton was lower key than I was expecting, and appeared almost hesitant at
the start. This wasn't a traditional conference speech, however. Clinton
doesn't need to pepper his speeches with key points which draw applause from
his audience - after all, he's out of the "votes games" now, at least
directly.

Consequently he was heard in almost rapt silence for about 40 minutes,
puncuated by occasional smatterings of clapping. What we got was a tour de
force from perhaps the world's leading statesman, covering world poverty,
HIV/AIDS and climate change. Clinton's work since he left office means that
he has a unique authority on all these subjects.

And he was right that inexplicably, the Labour government has not reaped the
electoral dividend from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair's championing of the
Gleneagles agenda last year. There have to be lessons there as Labour
campaigns both in next year's local polls and ultimately the General
Election to come.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Springfield Park CCTV

Just because I'm at Conference doesn't mean that the ward work can get
forgotten.

Together with ward colleague Andy Scott (who's also here) I've been chasing
the installation of CCTV in Springfield Park. The area has been plagued
with Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) for years. Residents living on Whinfield
Park and the Moray/Muirkirk estate suffered, and we have worked closely with
the Police and the Council Wardens to try and tackle the problem. Everyone
was delighted in June when it was announced our campaign had paid off, and
CCTV was to be installed. A pole was erected in preparation for the camera.

That was as far as things got. The Council's cameras are now digital - this
means that the pictures are better in the control room. To beam back from
Springfield Park however, a relay had to be installed on the only suitable
tall building in the area - Northgate House. Unfortunately, the building's
owners seemed to drag their feet and wouldn't respond to the request.
Deadlock on a key scheme to tackle yobbery in Haughton.

The good news is that it would seem a draft agreement has now been signed.
Council rules mean that the agreement has to be considered by Cabinet in
October. At least the end is now in sight, and local residents will be able
to sleep easier when the camera is finally put in place.

Apologies

I understand that this blog's format has become a bit skewed - sorry for
that, but I'm posting this from my mobile phone in Manchester. I can't see
or influence the way my words are published.

It remains the case that I believe I'm the only councillor from any party in
Durham or the Tees Valley who blogs, so please stay with me. Normal service
should be resumed after Friday.

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Tony's Last Speech

A consumate performance from the PM this afternoon. Both in terms of his
subject matter, and his delivery, he came across as a statesman at the top
of his game and not on the way out. The standing ovations both before and
after he spoke were heartfelt. I think it's beginning to dawn on some
sections of the Party finally what we stand to lose when he's gone.

The most thoughtful and challenging areas of his speech covered the emerging
issues facing the country including globalisation, mass migration and
climate change. He pointed out that these were problems we couldn't tackle
alone, but need to solidify our relationships both with the US and the EU.

Probably the best received elements was the political knockabout - the
LibDems dismissed as an irrelevance in a single sentence, and a coruscating
attack on Cameron's Tories. I hope after he leaves No.10 he will continue
to play an active part in British politics. His campaigning genius for one
will be sorely missed. I foresee him coming back in some form in the next
General Election....

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Gordon's Speech

Posting this from the punningly entitled "Is there anyting new left in New
Labour?" fringe meeting.

I thought Gordon's speech was very different from previous years -
refreshingly so. In the past listening to Gordon has been akin to running
with the bulls in Pamplona - whilst riding the lead bull! They've been
barnstorming efforts with stacks of statistics which took no prisoners, but
hardly made him appear a warm or approachable political figure. They were
qualities which made him however a very successful Chancellor.

Today we saw a more informal, more human Gordon Brown. Fewer stats and less
bombast. A recognition at the outset that he had made mistakes for which he
was sorry (although he couldn't resist implicating TB too).

He was received with a huge outpouring of support from delegates. It would
appear that the plotting to overthrow the PM in which a number of his
supporters were implicated, has been forgotten, at least for the time being.
Gordon looked and sounded like true Prime Ministerial material. I remain of
the view that he will be the next Labour Party leader, and that it is in the
best interests on the Party that he is elected overwhelmingly.

Only then can some of the dissident Labour MP's in Parliament be isolated
and dealt with. It's their self-indulgent antics which began to perpetuate
the idea that Labour is a divided party.

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On the Fringe

Party Conferences are as notable for what happens away from the main hall,
on the so-called fringe.

There are countless events - at least 15 to 20 at any one time. Some are
fairly shameless attempts by various industries to promote themselves. This
afternoon, for example, one event poses the question "Is the health and
fitness industry fit for 2006?" - perhaps you can guess the answer as the
debate is sponsored by the Fitness Industry Association....

Some are "must attend" events. I went along to the New Statesman reception
last night, which had the great and the good from the London media - it was
a little bit of Islington transposed to the banks of the Irwell.

Delegates have to choose carefully, however. I might pop into the
Government of Gibraltar reception this evening not out of my passion for
Iberian politics, but because the food and drink should be good. After all,
a man's gotta eat...

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Party Conference

An opportunity arose this afternoon to speak at Conference, so after waving
my papers dementedly in the direction of the Chair, I broke my conference
duck.

Even though I'm an experienced speaker, I still dried up slightly as I
shuffled my papers on the podium. Still, I got my points across, and
managed to (just about) stay within the 3 minute limit.

I spoke on the work of Labour's National Policy Forum in a debate that was
part of a section on Party renewal. There were plenty of inspirational
speeches, and it was good to hear that the Party in Darlington is on the
right track as we step up our campaigning effort across the town.

After being in far too much of a hurry to get to Conference, I managed to
lock my keys in the car, so I'm writing this waiting for a locksmith to
arrive....

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Useful morning spent at the Darlington Labour Party's Policy Forum at
Lingfield Point. A good attendance, including colleagues from Bishop
Auckland. Alan Milburn kicked off the session by examining the challenges
facing the country over the next 10 years. He pointed out how the political
landscape is now utterly different from 1997 - Labour in government has
ensured that important gains such as the National Minimum Wage, big
increases in funding in health and education, constitutional reform and
measures to tackle poverty have become part of the political mainstream,
albeit they were bitterly opposed by the Tories at the time.

Alan cautioned that New Labour needed to continue to look forwards, if we
are retain the momentum to take us towards a historic fourth term.

I spoke briefly in my guise as a member of the Party's National Policy
Forum, as well as chairing the meeting. Our discussion today will feed into
the Party's consultation process as we look ahead to shaping the next
manifesto. The process, called Partnership in Power allows every Party
member to contribute.

Then spent three hours with ward colleague Cllr. Andy Scott knocking on the
doors of residents in Haughton West listening to views about the Tesco
development.

More people were genuinely undecided about the proposal than I'd expected,
although a clear majority were against. Most seemed appreciative that we
were keen to hear what local people had to say as we decide whether or not
to support the proposal. It's an exercise we are definitely going to
repeat.

Picked up some concerns on Riverside Way about localised flooding, and
parking problems in Wheeldale Close, which I'll follow through on Monday.

This is my first attempt at posting away from Darlington - I'm now in
Manchester for the Party's Annual Conference.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Tesco

Three days now into the Tesco debate. Bizarrely, reading the Northern Echo coverage, with some passionate contributions on both sides of the argument, I feel almost detached. Labour Councillors are not either "for" or "against" the scheme, but are waiting for the outcome of public consultation before forming a view on whether or not to support the redevelopment. In addition, I'm a member of the Planning Committee, and so have been advised by the Borough Solicitor not to make "definitive statements" one way or the other, whether here or in newsletters or comments to the press. In one way it's frustrating, but waiting for opinion to solidify around a view is much healthier for democracy in the town.

No one can accuse the Council of trying to lead the town by the nose regarding the Feethams proposal. Literature in the Town Crier and elsewhere stresses both the potential but also the risks involved if the plans get the go-ahead. There are a significant number of meetings where residents can air their views, not just in the town centre, but in the community too. In Haughton West, we have a session booked on 11 September between 3pm and 4.30pm at St. Bede's Primary School on the Kingsway, and between 11am and 4pm at Oban Court in Whinbush Way on 19 September. I'm also intending to be at the Darlington Assembly when this is discussed on 2 October from 9.30am, and the General Consultation meeting at Bondgate Methodist Church on Wednesday 11 October from 6.30pm. There's information about all of the consultation events at http://www.darlington.gov.uk/Democracy/Consultations/Town+Centre+Development/Consultation+Events/Consultation+Events.htm

A couple of final thoughts for tomight. Firstly, there's been so wild speculation elsewhere on the internet that the Council somehow lured Tesco to Darlington. I can clear that up - Tesco approached the Council about the scheme and not the other way around.

Finally, I thought the Darlington and Stockton Times leader today was thoughtful. I can't paste a hyperlink for the dear old D&S, so I'll quote it in full.


The Terror of Tesco The Tesco plan for the centre of Darlington is a bold one bound to inflame passions.

For many people, Tesco represents the ugly face of the highly successful British supermarket industry. Its continued growth and increase in share of the UK grocery market is thought by some to be reaching a point where it is, like its American equivalent, Wallmart, threatening to destroy HighStreets, and exerting a malign influence on its suppliers who of course include farmers.

Should Darlington fear Tesco? We think not, in the main, because Darlington as a town has a critical mass to sustain it. Where the Tesco effect may be deemed potentially harmful is in the much smaller communities. Even then, circumstances may not mean the end of retail civilisation. The examples of Northallerton, Yarm and Thirsk prove that there is life on the High Street after the arrival of Sir Terry Leahy's bargain-bearing stormtroopers.

Is the Town Hall the right place? Undoubtedly it is better than some out-of-centre Morton Palms-type location. Indeed Government policy on supermarket development, which aims to keep shoppers in town centres, would make such a location almost impossible.

But is the scheme as outlined the right one? We would suggest that the mix is pobably right. Apart from the Tesco store, which by modern standards isn't massive, there would be no other retail units. Given that the Commercial Street shopping scheme will be a reality by then, it doesn't seem likely that the town could sustain another large retail development. More town centre housing is to be welcomed.

There will be no tears shed over the demise of the appalling bus station and the existing Town Hall, a fine example of late sixties civic brutalism. Apart from aesthetic objections to the Town Hall's design, it isn't as they say these days "fit for purpose", being too small for a local authority with greater responsibilities than the body for which it was designed.

Our reservations rest on the design of the structures due to take their place. While it is tempting to to suggest that anything will be better than what exists, we hope that architects will come up with something bettwer than the rather characterless buildings featured in the artist's impressions.